An Anchorage restaurant has found itself overwhelmed with support after its owner shared a Facebook post standing up to mistreatment of an employee with developmental disabilities.
It all started with a customer calling to complain to Little Italy Restaurante on Saturday night. On the phone was an irate customer complaining about one of the restaurant's delivery drivers. According to restaurant owner P.J. Gialopsos, the customer was ranting, using foul language and accusing the driver of using drugs when he brought him the wrong container of food.
Gialopsos said her daughter, Emily, took the call and tried to explain to the man that he was mistaken. She told him that the delivery driver, who has worked at the restaurant for the past two years, has autism and a speech impediment. She assured him he was not using drugs.
Gialopsos said it wasn't the first time they fielded a complaint about the driver, but said once it was explained that he has a disability, customers generally understand.
When the driver returned to the South Anchorage restaurant after the encounter with the irate customer, he was shaken up, Gialopsos said. He explained that he had been yelled at and called names by the customer when he had mixed up the food.
With that knowledge, Gialopsos, who has owned the restaurant for 31 years with her husband, Spiro, said they decided to "fire" the customer by telling her staff to not accept his calls or reservations, or to deliver pizza to his door.
"So (the driver) is a little awkward socially -- gee whiz -- that doesn't give you a right to call him a foul name and make his day miserable," Gialopsos said in a phone interview Wednesday.
But just "firing" the customer alone didn't sit well with Gialopsos. So on Tuesday afternoon she posted the incident to the restaurant's Facebook page to let people know that the restaurant would not be tolerating that kind of behavior.
With that, the post went viral.
Overnight the post got more than 2,000 likes. By Thursday afternoon it had more than 14,000. More than 1,500 people had left comments on the post Thursday, most of which were overwhelmingly supportive.
Gialopsos didn't ask the driver before posting the story on Facebook. She said she never thought it would gain as much attention as it did.
She said the driver, whom she declined to name, is thrilled over the positive feedback and goodwill. She said he approved the restaurant speaking about the incident, but added that he and his family did not want to be interviewed or identified.
"He just wants to work," she said.
Gialopsos said he's a talented young man who has worked at the restaurant for two years. She said he's a successful student at the University of Alaska Anchorage, a hard worker, extremely funny and observant.
But his autism can make him socially awkward around strangers, she said. He can be abrupt in conversations and has difficulty making eye contact. When he's nervous he makes hand gestures and sometimes chews on a keychain.
Christine King, project director for the UAA Center for Human Development's Disability Justice Initiative, said she often hears about incidents of discrimination among those with developmental disabilities. But she thinks that Alaska is more aware of disabilities, in part because of the work of the Alaska Mental Health Trust and the high rate of fetal alcohol syndrome.
"I think our state is way more savvy, or sensitive or educated and informed, about things like those non-apparent disabilities and I think that's why it does strike that chord," she said of why the post went viral.
Danielle Tessen, executive director of the Autism Society of Alaska, said awareness of autism is growing but that there is still more work to be done toward acceptance. She said she often hears from parents worried about employment for their adult children. She said it's hard to find businesses that support those with autism who don't have some sort of personal connection with the disorder. It's rare Tessen hears about businesses openly supporting autistic workers.
"Honestly, it's always the opposite," she said. "It's like, well, they were fired from the job because someone called and complained because there was a lack of eye contact, when really it's a lack of understanding."
Gialopsos said she had spoken with the driver's mother Wednesday after sharing the Facebook post. Gialopsos said the mother was so overwhelmed by the response to the post that it brought her to tears.
Gialopsos has also heard from people around the country who read the post and called to thank her for standing up for the driver.
And locally, while the support has been wide, business hasn't jumped. She said besides a few people who arrived for lunch Wednesday afternoon (they don't serve it) it was a typical Wednesday night dinner crowd.
"I had no idea (the post) would go so wide," she said. "I was just peeved."